1. WHAT I DO -- Alan Jackson
Weeks on the chart 1
Style Contemporary country with increasingly traditionalist leanings.
Worldview "I stand here tonight with this six-string guitar, / to be somethin' I've always been in my heart, / just for the chance to play you my songs. / And the thrill when I hear you singin' along / has been worth everything I've been through / to do what I do."
Overall quality Not quite in Merle Haggard's league yet, but getting there.
2. LIVE LIKE YOU WERE DYING -- Tim McGraw
Weeks on the chart 3
Style Commercially flawless contemporary country.
Objectionable material "Kill Myself" (casual cursing); "Everybody Hates Me" (for those who object to S.O.B.).
Worldview "Sitting at the table don't happen much no more. / We've gotten too complicated. / It's all way overrated. / I love the old and outdated way of life" ("Back When").
Overall quality Top-drawer professional country songwriting, efficiently, if not always passionately, interpreted.
3. GENIUS LOVES COMPANY -- Ray Charles
Weeks on the chart 2
Style Omnivorously eclectic American pop.
Worldview Ray Charles loved every kind of music, and every kind of music loved him back.
Overall quality Although the Michael McDonald, Bonnie Raitt, Gladys Knight, B.B. King, Johnny Mathis, and Van Morrison duets hold up better than the James Taylor, Elton John, Natalie Cole, and Willie Nelson duets, the music only really comes to life when the Genius starts to sing.
4. MY EVERYTHING -- Anita Baker
Weeks on the chart 1
Style Romantic, upscale-nightclub soul.
Objectionable material "Like You Used to Do" (casual cursing).
Worldview "See with your heart. / See with your spirit, not with your mind" ("Close Your Eyes").
Overall quality Tends to support the primary thesis of Anita Baker's critics: namely, that because her singing and sound bear no trace of either gospel or the blues, her music is so creamily smooth it's ultimately indistinguishable from froth.
4. THAT'S WHAT I CALL MUSIC! 16 -- Various artists
Weeks on the chart 5
Style Mostly hip-hop, with some peroxide pop, guitar-heavy rock, and Gretchen Wilson thrown in for diversity.
Objectionable material The occasional muted vulgarities and general raunchiness of the hip-hop half.
Worldview No one has ever gone broke underestimating the taste of the American public.
Overall quality Adolescence ad absurdum.
In the spotlight
Somewhat overlooked in the wake of Ray Charles's recent passing was the death on Sept. 15 (from prostate cancer) of John Cummings, aka Johnny Ramone, the one-man guitar army whose group, the Ramones (1976-1996), was the quintessential American punk band. Though not nearly as influential as Ray Charles, Mr. Ramone was hailed as a rock 'n' roll pioneer, if only for rescuing the electric guitar from self-aggrandizing soloists and discovering within its more jackhammer-like properties a primitive populist voice.
What makes his passing particularly sad is that he was also one of rock's few outspoken Republicans. And while the Ramones' catalog can hardly be said to "tilt right," the ferociously sarcastic humor of their best-known songs ("I Wanna Be Sedated," "Blitzkrieg Bop," "The KKK Took My Baby Away," "Teenage Lobotomy") is a kind of inoculation against the off-puttingly somber political grandstanding to which the likes of Elton John and Bruce Springsteen have become increasingly susceptible.